In praise of David Fincher’s new period piece.
After a six-year-long wait, David Fincher finally makes a grand return to the silver screen with what is likely his most idiosyncratic film yet — Mank, a film depicting the writing of Citizen Kane, told from the viewpoint of its scribe, Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), otherwise known as “Mank”. The film, much like the movie it’s about, primarily hinges on a spiraling nonlinear structure in order to tell Mank’s story, which traverses back and forth between 1940, the year where he started writing the script for Kane, and 1934, the year of the Californian gubernatorial election.
Whereas Kane was a Cervantean-Shakespearean narrative about the life of newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane, told through the uncertain recollections of people who knew him, Mank traverses through its singular screenwriter’s memories on much more centralized, definitive terms. It’s a film that charts his encounters with media magnates, political figures, and his own colleagues, developing each of these elements one by one to make sense of why Citizen Kane was written the way it was.
Much speculation has come about regarding Kane’s production, and a majority of it centers around the fact that Charles Foster Kane, the protagonist of the film, exhibits many parallels to real-life newspaper executive William Randolph Hearst, who had close ties with Mankiewicz for some time. Mank’s narrative decides to further expand on this, showing the political climate of the ’30s to ’40s that drove Mankiewicz to seemingly criticize one of his friends through writing an epic, tragic story about his life. If Mank’s main target being a news executive is any indication, the result has much to do with the interconnectedness of media, privilege, and politics, as well as this intersection’s disastrously influential fallout.
Fincher is a director with significant talent for directing stories about certain eccentric yet influential individuals. Tyler Durden from Fight Club and Mark Zuckerberg from The Social Network are immediate standouts, as both of them respond to the circumstances of their own worlds through resorting to means that grow a greater amount of sway than initially expected. Herman Mankiewicz and Citizen Kane are by no means exceptions to this trend, and Fincher manages to pull this off yet again through his usual, polished method.
Mank’s journey through time slowly reveals the many things that pushed him over the edge to writing Kane. From the frustrating parties spent with various privileged yet oblivious individuals, to his time spent at MGM, to the role MGM’s propaganda played in the 1934 Californian gubernatorial election, Mank’s vision of the 1930s is one seemingly worth making a farce out of.
For instance, one of the first major encounters Mank has with a figure of influence is with MGM co-founder Louis Mayer (Arliss Howard), whose opening speech on emotional and charismatic technique is used to dupe MGM employees into cutting their wages during the Great Depression. It’s a moment that Mank initially seems to brush aside, claiming that at the very least, he’s seen worse in his lifetime.
Mayer and William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) are also frequently seen holding lavish parties for upper-class guests, most of which are exposed by Mank to be relatively oblivious about the world around them. Mank’s quips against many of these guests — including questions about if they’re able to discern between communism and socialism — are initially regarded as humorous remarks from a figurative court jester, something that Mank at least plays along with towards the beginning.
It’s with the introduction of the Californian gubernatorial election, however, that the film begins to take a turn for the serious, and the above two elements begin to subtly rear their ugly heads. MGM’s hypocrisies are exposed in full view as they begin developing propaganda films in support of Frank Merriam, the GOP candidate, painting his rival, writer Upton Sinclair, as a communist-socialist demagogic hybrid, something endorsed by Hearst and Mayer’s upper-class troupe.
At first, Mank and his colleagues dismiss the notion of these films having a genuine impact on the populace, but the results are devastating; Merriam wins by hundreds of thousands of votes. Up until this point, Mank’s leftist tendencies are indulgently used as a source of amusement for his conservative colleagues — it is from this point onward that Mank decides to make his views fully known, and he does so through the only way he knows best.
All of these scenes are interspersed between episodes of Mank writing the script for Kane in 1940, in the aftermath of a rather humorous car accident that leaves his leg broken. He’s pushed by Orson Welles (Tom Burke) to finish the script within two months, and his weeks-long mission is punctuated with waves of alcohol, repeated phone calls, and needless squabbles. It’s with these scenes that Mank is constantly confronted with the potential ramifications of basing his script so blatantly off of Hearst while critiquing his life and the people around him.
One of Mank’s biggest dissuaders is Hearst’s longtime partner and famous actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), who had numerous brief encounters with Mank in the past, and who Mank repeatedly claims should not be concerned about the script’s several parallels to her life. While not much of a concern for Mank himself, it’s a source of conflict in its own right — in the process of critiquing the stifling of leftist policies by colossal media conglomerates, Mank finds himself on the precipice of burning a number of bridges in the process, with unprecedented personal and legal consequences.
With all these nigh-histrionic narrative elements in mind, Mank’s primary argument for how Citizen Kane came to be immediately becomes clear. Born from the mind of one of the most perceptive men of his time, Kane seems to be, in Mank’s view, an objection to when media and its associated emotions are used for dangerous means, and its strictly personal narrative about one specific magnate is a scathing, more intimate criticism of this. Charles Foster Kane’s downfall is Herman Mankiewicz’s revenge against Hearst’s media conglomerate, and perhaps his only means of revenge. He has little influence in the social circles he participates in, only able to throw a quip once or twice before running the risk of being thrown out, yet he can try and influence everyone else outside of these circles.
What is perhaps most perceptive about Jack Fincher’s screenplay for Mank is how much he seems to understand the linguistic nature of Mank as a character, and what is perhaps most perceptive about David Fincher’s direction is how much he seems to understand the world Mank inhabits. With the exception of the final 10 minutes of the film — seemingly lifting from Pauline Kael’s utterly absurd “Raising Kane”, a vindictive essay which baselessly claimed that Welles contributed nothing to the script— the entirety of Mank is an ingeniously made ode to the genesis of a highly revered film classic. It may not exactly adhere to history, but in the process, it delivers a unique narrative that meta-contextually ties into what exactly it is that makes Citizen Kane work as well as it does.
Ultimately, Mank can only pay witness to the machinations of the greedy companies, executives, conglomerates, and politicians that surround him. As A.O. Scott puts it, “he’s an alienated insider, a participant observer, a kibitzer at the table where the big guys make the big bets.” His job, though, is to put these observations to print, and given the legacy that’s resulted from his work, corporate political power can only hold so much influence in the face of something so timeless and stunning. At the end of the day, Mank is a mere writer, but that may be all the power he needs.